Heather Kitching, a learning and development consultant, lived abroad in both the United Kingdom and New Zealand for 12 years but returned to South Africa in 2012 following a divorce. Readjusting to the country took a while but, as a skilled professional, Kitching found a job within a few weeks.
"Finding a position was the easiest part of moving back. I was here in July and working by September 1."
She is just one of an estimated 359 000 high-skilled South Africans who have returned since 2008 and have been absorbed into the labour force, according to research by Adcorp, South Africa's largest diversified workforce management and business outsourcing company, reported in its employment index for December 2013.
Data from other organisations support the view that South Africans are returning, although there are no official numbers.
Adcorp's estimate is based on an analysis of the wage rate of high-skilled workers to assess the changes in numbers of these workers.
By using data from Adcorp's recruitment subsidiaries, which specialise in placing high-skilled personnel (who individually earned more than R400 000 a year in 2013), the company calculated the estimated number of South Africans who have returned since the global financial crisis began in 2008.
Demand for high-skilled workers
This finding, based on Adcorp's 12% market share, is extrapolated for the rest of the economy to determine a national estimate.
The research assumes that there is a relatively stable demand for high-skilled workers, based on the findings of earlier research, and the fact that companies cannot easily employ foreign high-skilled workers because of strict immigration measures.
Adcorp found the average real (after-inflation) wages of high-skilled workers increased from R265 680 a year in 1997 to R423 730 a year in 2013 — an above-inflation increase of 5.1% a year.
But "since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, wages of high-skilled South Africans have declined by 23% in after-inflation terms. This decline is consistent with an increased supply of 359 000 additional workers", the report said.
Using different methods, the Homecoming Revolution, an online platform with the aim to bring home African diaspora professionals, has estimated 340 000 professional South Africans have returned home in the past 10 years.
This figure was calculated with the help of official figures, such as the global competitiveness survey, on evidence gathered from the private sector and on its own audience figures and in-house surveys, according to its chief executive and founder, Angel Jones.
Professional wages go down
"That people are coming home, I think there is some evidence of that," said Mike Schussler, chief executive of economists.co.za. "I don't think it has been hundreds of thousands, and, because we don't have the numbers, we will never be able to tell."
There are several reasons why professional wages have gone down in some categories, Schussler said.
Conveyancing attorneys, for example, would earn less in line with a decline in the property boom. Civil summonses and judgments for debt have decreased substantially over the years since debt counselling came into play, he said.
Changes in the VAT Act have also seen small companies doing tax differently and are not as dependent as before on chartered accountants.
There are also fewer houses being built, although Statistics South Africa data show it is picking up again, with almost 5.8-million more residential building plans being passed by municipalities for January to October 2013 compared with the same period in 2012.
But the slump in recent years has seen architects, lawyers and those on the administration side losing out, Schussler said.
South Africa's skills shortage
"All those things mean that, at least for some professionals, the demand for them has decreased."
Adcorp said its estimate suggests several things: South Africa's skills shortage is substantial; restrictions on foreigners living and working in South Africa should be relaxed; living standards in South Africa have remained relatively high during the global financial crisis; and South Africans who emigrated before the 2008 financial crisis were possibly naive about the security of their jobs in foreign countries.
"We have certainly seen people are coming home and the reasons are always the same consistently over the past 10 years," Jones said.
They are because of, firstly, friends and family, then a sense of purpose and belonging, the country's lifestyle and career opportunities.
Nikki Serrano, a branch manager for a restaurant and gaming company, returned to South Africa with her husband after living in the United States for several years. But her job had little to do with it.
"I didn't see myself raising children in the US. South Africa has a soul and substance to it that I missed in the States. The climate is right and the people are friendly."
Clampdown on working visas
The clampdown on working visas abroad has also seen South Africans coming home, as has the growth and exciting opportunities in Africa, Jones said. But the recession may also have played a role.
"With the slowdown abroad, people are realising that life is really not that much greener on the other side. If you have international experience and expertise, certainly you will quickly find job opportunities [in South Africa]," Jones said.
In a 2009 report, the Solidarity Research Unit warned that many South Africans working abroad would be the first to lose their jobs during the recession because of the last-in, first-out principle.
"This means that many South Africans will be the first to be retrenched in foreign countries," the report said.
And in the same year, Jack Hammer Executive Headhunters, an executive search firm, said in a statement that the number of inquiries from South Africans living abroad about the availability of top jobs on home ground had increased.
Global research company PWC said that, as an organisation, it has seen a lot more requests from former employees wanting to return to South Africa in recent years and for people requesting jobs.
Many IT people return from overseas
Alana Bailey, deputy chief executive of Afriforum, who has been involved with its Kom Huistoe campaign from the start in 2003, said many people in the IT sector were actively recruited overseas several years ago, and many of them are now returning home.
"Those with high skills, they are absorbed back into the labour market quickly."
But Bailey said that its campaign has experienced a "definite slowdown" since the economic crisis started in 2008.
"The very affluent professionals have lawyers and advisers who do everything for them [in order to return]," she said.
The less affluent, and those more likely to use the Kom Huistoe platform, are more inclined to stick it out overseas.